British actor Julian Sands performs A Celebration of Harold Pinter, directed by John Malkovich, inset top. Pinter, bottom inset, was a friend and colleague of Sands. *Photo supplied
British actor Julian Sands performs A Celebration of Harold Pinter, directed by John Malkovich, inset top. Pinter, bottom inset, was a friend and colleague of Sands. *Photo supplied

Renowned playwright, poet and screenwriter Harold Pinter trusted no one to perform his most intimate and personally revealing works of poetry more than his friend and colleague, Julian Sands. 

Seriously ill with liver cancer, the Nobel Laureate Pinter selected poems for his own tributary recital in 2005, intended to be performed only once. As his illness advanced, he realised he would not be well enough to perform it and so invited the well-known British actor Sands to step in for him.

He closely mentored Sands, spending hours and hours going through the script. The one-off recital was so well received when he performed it in LA that there was public pressure for more performances. Pinter died in 2008, but Sands used the recital as the basis for A Celebration of Harold Pinter which he will perform next Tuesday as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.

“I was very carefully prepped on the exactness of it, and it gave me a real insight, not only into his work, but also into the master himself,” Sands told the Bermuda Sun.

“At the recital, he sat there and was very much present. He knew how personal a lot of his stuff was and he didn’t really want anyone else doing it. It was an ambivalent experience hearing this poetry coming from the mouth of an imposter. But I think I can say I had his approbation.

“Since he died, whenever I do this material, I always get the feeling that he is hovering around me. I am under his watchful eye and the tutoring continues. It is a strange and powerful experience, I never feel alone. 

“There was a reason he asked me to do it. He felt a connection and appreciation for my voice or my nervous system. I have dreams about him giving me notes and thoughts about it.”

Making its debut at Edinburg Festival in 2011, A Celebration... includes not only Pinter’s poetry, but also prose, quotes from interviews, and anecdotes. Sands also enlisted Hollywood actor John Malkovich, who was well acquainted with Pinter and his works, to direct the show. 

Pinter was born in London in 1930 and was predominantly known for his plays. Many regard his Tony Award-winning play The Homecoming (1965) as his masterpiece. During the 1960s, he branched out into film, writing screenplays for the likes of The Servant (1963), and Accident (1967) both starring Dirk Bogarde. His best-known screen adaption was the 1981 film The French Lieutenant. His poetry was less known but Sands says it reveals much more about the man than his plays or scripts ever did.

A Celebration... is a word portrait of Harold Pinter through his own words and through the words of a few other people,” said Sands. “It is in his poetry and interviews and prose that he really revealed himself — his feelings, his ideas, his love, his humanity and his humour. In the plays the voice of the author is quite oblique — it would be quite difficult to have a strong sense of the autobiography of the author.”

John Malkovich, who starred in Oscar-nominated film The Killing Fields with Sands in 1984, has taken a very minimal approach to directing A Celebration... says Sands but his work has been essential. “I needed to work on the structure and presentation of the material. John Malkovich had his own working relationship with Harold and was taken by it so we worked together. It’s like a soloist working with a conductor — the violinist can play and read the music but the conductor is there to keep the tone, atmosphere and timing and support and security. He has a wonderful ear for Harold’s language. It is like having a conversation with a friend.”

Sands and Malkovich are currently filming together in Puerto Rico working on the NBC series Cross Swords in which Malkovich plays Blackbeard and Sands plays the Governor of Jamaica.

Sands promised that A Celebration… is no boring recital. “It is about as far as you can get from a recital. It’s not some Victorian drawing-room tedium — it is a very dynamic, very funny and entertaining 80 minutes. Come along and fasten your seatbelts. 

“I hope people feel transported, edified, entertained — that they have a sense of themselves and their own lives which is heightened by being exposed to the brilliance of Harold’s writing. 

“I tell the story of Harold Pinter like Homer telling the story of the Trojan Wars  —it is just as dramatic and compelling in my point of view.” 

A Celebration... is next Tuesday at City Hall. See bermudafestival.org